Irish Traditional Music

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If you are new to Irish Traditional Music, or “trad” as it’s commonly called nowadays in Ireland, read on and learn a little about this wonderful rich cultural phenomonon that so often defines Ireland and it’s people in the eyes of the world.  The information below is purely to whet your appetite for trad music and should not be used as a source for your postgraduate studies in Irish culture!

The Tunes

There are many different types of tunes played in Irish Traditional Music, but by far the most popular are jigs and reels.  Reels are tunes in 4/4 time and jigs are in 6/8 time.  There are many other tune types played in trad music in 4/4 time, including hornpipes, barndances, schottisches and flings.  Other popular tune types played are polkas (2/4 time), slides (12/8 time), slip jigs (9/8 time), waltzes (3/4) and becoming increasingly popular among contemporary styles are tunes in 7/8 time.

The Melody Instruments

The melodies in Irish music are played on a variety of instruments and some of the more popular instruments are fiddle, flute, concertina, uilleann pipes, banjo, accordion, tin whistle, harmonica, mandolin, harp, and bouzouki.

The Rhythm and Accompaniment Instruments

It is rare to find a trad music session these days without at least one accompanist providing rhythmical backing on guitar, bouzouki, piano or harp.  Also popular accompaniment instruments in groups are bass and cello.

The Percussion Instruments

Just as a session would not be complete without a rhythm instrument, equally important is percussion, most often played on the bodhrán, but also common on drums, cajon, and bones.

One of Seán Maguire’s famous Bodhrán Solos

Irish Instruments

Contrary to popular belief, there are only two genuinely traditional Irish instruments – the uilleann pipes and the bodhrán.  The uilleann pipes (pronounced “illen”) probably originated sometime early in the 18th century and was based on the bagpipes, with the principle difference being that the air bag for the uilleann pipes is inflated by a bellows strapped to the elbow (“uilleann” is Irish for “elbow”), as opposed to blowing through a pipe as with the bagpipes.  For more information and background on the uilleann pipes, check out Na Píobairí Uilleann (The Pipers Club) at  The Bodhrán is an Irish drum consisting of a cylindrical wooden frame, usually 4 to 6 inches deep and 12 to 16 inches in diameter, with an animal skin stretched across it, most commonly goat skin, but also popular are calf skin and kangaroo skin.  The drum is held vertically and was traditionally played with the hand, but is almost always played nowadays with a stick called a tipper or beater.  Many other instruments, including the fiddle, harp, tin whistle, concertina and button accordion, while popularly associated with Irish Traditional Music, originated in other countries.

The Tradition

Tradition means handing down of something from generation to generation, and so it is with Irish traditional music.  Children are taught to play their instruments by their parents and peers of their parents and they learn their repertoire of tunes from playing with older musicians.  Equally as important as learning how to play music, the older generations pass on their love of the music, as well as their repertoire of tunes and playing style from the local area.  There are very distinctive playing styles from different areas in Ireland and often particular instruments and styles of playing those instruments are associated with specific regions.  For example, mention a concertina and you’re sure to hear about the Clare tradition of concertina playing; Donegal has its own unique style of fiddle playing, as have many counties and regions; it’s unimaginable to talk about polkas and slides without mentioning the Sliabh Luachra area of Cork/Kerry where they have a long tradition of playing these types of tunes, often on the accordion; there’s a great tradition of flute playing in Sligo/Leitrim/Roscommon; these are just a few samples of instruments and styles associated with different areas but there are many others.


The trad session is the mainstay of traditional Irish music playing.  Historically, sessions would occur most frequently in people’s houses when friends and neighbours would gather at the end of the working day or week and bring their instruments for an evening of music, song and dance.  These types of session are still popular in many parts of Ireland, but somewhat less frequent than in days of yore.  It is more popular now for sessions to take place in public places such as pubs, restaurants, hotels, community centres, etc.  Sessions are very informal affairs and all musicians are encouraged to join in.  Sets of tunes, often three at a time but not always, are played together, and while there are no rules as to which tunes are played and in what order, there are some customs adhered to.  For example, whoever starts a set of tunes usually decides which tunes follow in the set and other musicians will listen as the tunes change to see what tune is coming next.  There are standard sets of tunes which the musicians would know well and the same 3 or 4 tunes would be played in the same order almost always.  For other sets which are less well known, whoever starts the set would usually decide on the tunes that follow and the other musicians listen closely when a tune ends to see what tune follows next, quickly latching on to the tune after just two or three notes, almost imperceptibly to the listener.

The Fleadh

“See you at the Fleadh” is a popular salutation among trad musicians and enthusiasts.  The Fleadh is a competition run by the governing body of Irish traditional music, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.  Fleadhanna (plural of ‘fleadh’ in Irish) are run at county level and competitors must compete in the county they reside in, with the top 2 or 3 players in each competition in each age group (under 12, under 15, under 18 and over 18) progressing to the appropriate provincial fleadh, and finally on to Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann which is held annually during the third week of August.  While the competitions are the official part of a fleadh, there is usually an accompanying fleadh festival involving music sessions, concerts and events.  Indeed, many people attend fleadhanna regularly and never go to the competitions, but just enjoy the music at sessions and concerts.  Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann (the All-Ireland Fleadh) is the most popular traditional Irish music festival in the world, attracting between 300,000 and 400,000 visitors each year from all over the world.  It is Ireland’s second largest annual festival, next to Saint Patrick’s Day.

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© The Maguires 2017